Nihilism is what goes wrong with idealism

Helen Dale

For banal temporal reasons, I read He-nry David Thoreau’s Walden: or, Life in the Woods back-to-back with the Unabomber’s manifesto, Industrial Society and Its Future.
I’d won various academic awards as an undergraduate, one of which mandated (and I remember being annoyed at this) I spend some thousands of dollars on purchases from the university bookshop. In between selecting Walden as one of the prize books and the manifesto’s publication—on September 19, 1995—an extended national controversy over my first novel took place. I didn’t read anything longer than the back of a cereal packet for four months. Which meant my last thought on finishing Walden (“this may give some people the wrong idea”) collided with a lengthy account of someone, apparently, getting just that sort of wrong idea.
Ted Kaczynski’s mail bombing campaign threaded its way through my primary and high school years. Unlike the classic 80s nuc-lear threat, it didn’t hover, omnipresent. Instead, it submerged and resurfaced, a ghostly submarine. Bit like kids’ faces on milk cartons. Sometimes the same kid. Sometimes a different kid. The bombings bled into each other, like the missing kids. I lost the ability to tell them apart.
Years later, I acted for an organisation then being menaced by animal rights militants. “Oxford Animal Libbers,” as I said at the time, tried to blow up Oxford colleges, beat up scientists with pickaxe handles, and track down shareholders in companies doing animal experimentation, tipping red paint all over their front doors. Activists labelled these charming behaviours “home visits.” Even lawyers (always background figures) were not immune. I got a dead rat in my pidge for my troubles.
Neither Kaczynski’s campaign nor that of the various animal libbers struck me as persuasive. “One always catches more flies with honey than with vinegar,” is an old saying of my pupil-master’s. There’s a long history of activist organisations shooting themselves in the foot because violence alienates the public. One reason UK women got the vote after women elsewhere in the British Empire was because British feminism’s militant wing (the suffragettes, as distinct from peaceful suffragists) engaged in a bombing and arson campaign. “The end doesn’t justify the means” may be a boring old saw; more seriously, bad means can corrupt the ends.
This professional reacquaintance with radical environmentalism and animal rights lunacy made me wonder why so many greenies and vegans were so bloody weird. I went down research rabbit-holes (living adjacent to the Bodleian Library helped) trying to work out how violence became acceptable to a subset of them. I mean, there was a period in this country when animal rights terrorism was more frequent (if less murderous) than terrorism. Any lack in lethality wasn’t for want of trying.
Now, of course, the Unabomber is on the way to rehabilitation, at least in some quarters: a classic case of mistaking darkness for depth. Across the internet, there are disciples proclaiming Kaczynski a prophet and his diagnosis of industrial society prescient. “Uncle Ted turned out to be correct” is something I’ve had said to my face. Yes, he’s “Uncle Ted” online.
Research in the Bodleian proved fruitless. I moved on to other clients, other firms, and other books, content that my curiosity would never be satisfied. However, at the same time as Kaczynski wannabes from Just Stop Oil were covering priceless works of art (a Van Gogh, a Vermeer, and a Monet) with tomato soup, glue, and mashed potatoes, I read a book I think provides some resolution to real puzzlement. Guilty Pigs: The Weird and Wonderful History of Animal Law reveals—in crisp and accurate prose stripped of sentiment or cant—that weird greenies and weird animal libbers have roots in and draw sustenance from weird legal history.
My only fault with the book is its title, although I cannot think of a better one. There is little wonder, unless accidentally standing in a decomposing corpse or being chased into a pond by a swarm of killer bees is wonderful.
Written by a pair of legal academics (full professors Katy Barnett and Jeremy Gans), Guilty Pigs is unique among books in this field because it isn’t written from an animal rights perspective. The authors are unconcerned with how the law ought to treat animals. Instead, their book “engages with animals as a matter of reality and history.” Comments in the last few pages indicate they’re aware this is distinctive.
And that history is, for the most part, stark raving bonkers. I mean, there is an entire chapter on bestiality and various legal systems’ approach to it. I do not, as a rule, endorse “trigger warnings” before upsetting material. I found myself glad of one in this case.
The sanest bits of animal law are, surprisingly, the earliest. The Romans—by analogy with slaves and children—viewed animals as permanently lacking in capacity, and for that reason not to be treated in the same way as humans. In practice, this meant “as property.” A child would grow up; a slave could be manumitted. Incapacity may dissipate among humans, but not animals. The Anglo-Saxons, meanwhile, viewed animals as things, and so landed in the same place as the Romans (albeit by dint of different reasoning). Animals were property. This passed into England’s common law.
It’s unsurprising that humanity’s two great law-giver civilisations developed pragmatic and workable animal law: they did so with everything. There is a reason England and Rome dominate the modern world’s functioning legal systems. It’s what happened later—even in countries steeped in those two traditions—that’s so striking.
Many of you have no doubt heard the quip that “the Queen owns the swans.” This is not only not true, but what is true (as Barnett and Gans observe) “is far more interesting.”
If I were to tell you that swan ownership in England was for centuries litigated in special courts called Swanmoots, while making a rightful claim depended on observing special markings (akin to brands) carved into the birds’ beaks in an-nual ceremonies called Sw-an-Uppings, you would qui-te properly suspect me of reading Tolkien while stoned.
In their turn, Swan-Uppings were presided over by an official called the Royal Swan-Master. He recorded the distinctive beak-marks—cross-referencing each with the correct noble family—in a dedicated “upping book,” much like a modern trademark registry. Guilty Pigs includes an illustration. Like Japanese Yakuza tattoos, the swan-markings are beautiful. Meanwhile, the Crown owns only unmarked mute swans, and much historic Swanmoot litigation turned on keeping these gorgeous but cantankerous birds out of the hands of “yeomen and husbandmen, and other persons of little reputation.”
I promise I am not making this up. If the common law’s adventure with swan courts is not bizarre enough for you, across broad swathes of Early Modern Europe, but especially in France, animals—most commonly pigs—were saddled with both criminal and civil responsibility and assumed to have the ability to form intent. That means put on trial for murder and other crimes. Even more weirdly, writs were served on weevils, rats, and other vermin, abjuring them to leave an area upon pain of anathematisation. The cover design for Guilty Pigs is based on a fresco from the church of Sainte-Trinité in Falaise depicting a pig in the dock, on trial with defence, prosecution, witnesses, judges, bailiffs, the lot.
It’s tempting to blame this behaviour on French customary law, which could be very different from Roman law and did persist in parts of the country for many centuries. However, by the time most of the animal trials took place, France’s “reception” of Roman law was complete. Aware that the great Roman jurists of classical antiquity would have considered pigs, cows, and horses in the dock utterly crackers, Barnett and Gans discuss various theories, but finally conclude that “a shift in philosophy took place, for reasons that remain unclear.”
And the oddness keeps coming. Those of you familiar with the policeman’s loyal companion, his trained dog—whether of the sniffer, guard, or search-and-rescue type—will learn that such dogs were not native to policing in the UK, US, or British Com-monwealth. Trained bloodhounds were offered by a hunter to aid in the Jack the Ripper investigation during his killing spree; the Met rejected them. Instead, the use of police dogs was borrowed from two “loser” jurisdictions, apartheid So-uth Africa and Nazi Ger-many. Both places deployed them with great skill, albeit for grim purposes.
I could keep going with stories like this, but they are better and more fulsomely told in the book. In addition—constructed as it is, with chapters on owning, controlling, blaming, understanding, harming, and protecting animals—Guilty Pigs provides an excellent primer on the core components of a working legal system. What sets it apart is the use of animal case studies. But tort or delict, contract, criminal law, trusts, the laws of evidence: these are a general legal practitioner’s bread and butter. Very often, animal law is a particular application of human law.
The weirdness stems from an ambivalence that’s been rattling around legal systems for millennia—even among the famously cruel Romans. Are animals simply property, or are they something more? This conundrum is threaded through the book, disclosing on the way that modern animal rights legislation squares the circle no better than Gaius or Henry de Bracton did centuries ago.
Humanity’s inability to discern its place on this living planet—in combination with the fact that our laws developed before Darwin’s great insight that man is another animal, and only hubris lets us forget it—is, I think, behind the nihilism of modern environmentalism and animal rights activism. It’s there in Malthusian anti-natalists who want to save the planet but believe human beings little more than cancers on the earth. It’s present in accelerationists who wish to make things worse so the future will somehow be better. It takes grotesque form amo-ng companies that pillage the earth and plunder its pe-ople while wrapped in gre-en and rainbow camouflage.
Nihilism is present in every movement, no matter how benevolent its aims. In that sense, the Unabomber was mundane. Nihilism is what goes wrong with idealism.